Emily McMullin writes about her experiences of sexual assault and why comments made by actress Angela Lansbury suggest a cultural change is needed – and fast.
Having been pretty vocal on the matter of sexual harassment since going to university, it got to the point last week where I felt I couldn’t not write something on the topic.
While I’m so glad that this long-awaited shit storm has begun and the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are finally having to face the consequences of their actions, I have also been horribly frustrated and angered by some of the comments and attitudes that are being bandied about as a result.
I reached the end of my tether when, in an interview with the Radio Times, Hollywood actress Angela Lansbury said that women ‘must sometimes take blame for sexual harassment’ because they have ‘gone out of their way to make themselves attractive’. She did, however, add that ‘it’s awful to say we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped’.
That’s quite a quote, and one I generally agree with – it is absurd that women are abused because of their physical appearance. It’s just a shame that she had to heap some of the blame onto women before highlighting what the real problem is and who it lies with (men, obviously).
I would argue, though, that physical appearance doesn’t have a huge amount to do with sexual harassment and assault. Every woman can tell you that we get harassed no matter what we look like or how we’re dressed – it may be worse in certain environments, such as nightclubs, but it’s always there, day and night, in both private and public spaces.
Also, the desire to look nice isn’t confined to women – most people regardless of gender or sexuality do to some extent. The bottom line, which Angela seems to have missed, is that nobody has the right to sexually harass or assault another person, regardless of how they’re dressed or who for.
It seems to be largely older women who say that young girls these days are ‘asking for it’ through the way they dress. I refuse to accept that a generation gap is the reason for this – these women should know better, and have clearly forgotten the skin-tight leggings and leather trousers of the 70s and the leotards of the 80s. Unless you wear a floor-length potato sack, most items of clothing are going to ‘reveal’ some part of your body.
And anyway, what human doesn’t know that women have legs, arms, breasts, a bum and all the rest?
It is both ridiculous and depressing to see the idea that the clothes a woman wears make her partly responsible for and deserving of sexual harassment or assault still legitimised and so widespread.
Society has long sexualised girls from a pre-pubescent age, and portrayed, treated and valued women as sex objects. We are made to feel that our worth is based solely on our physical attractiveness and appeal to the opposite sex – in fact, many industries profit from our insecurities – and punished when we act in line with this belief. For centuries, women have been forced to bear the burden of the rules and assumptions that society has taken upon itself to impose on our bodies and behaviour.
Both of my ex-boyfriends were sexually aggressive towards me on more than one occasion. The first shoved my hand down his pants when I was 14-years-old and the other once tried to force himself on me in public. One night I got with the manager of a bar I was in and when it had closed he persistently tried to get me to go down an alleyway with him. At 19, a man grabbed my breast in broad daylight as I crossed the road.
When visiting a friend at uni, I woke up to a guy I had kissed the night before in my bed with his hands all over my thighs – I had gone to sleep alone.
In my first job post-uni, I was sexually harassed by one of my managers, including being told indirectly by him that he wanted to be ‘in’ me.
These are just a few of the experiences that stick out in my memory from the years of being sexually harassed since I was a teenager. Was I to blame for any of them, and were they caused by my appearance? No.
They happened because those men have all been taught that they are more powerful than women, and haven’t learnt, or refuse to acknowledge, what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour. Those men felt that I owed them something, that they were entitled to my body. They wanted something and they took it without permission.
I never did anything about any of these incidents, and I feel guilt and shame for not reporting it and potentially protecting other women. The perpetrators, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t even remember these events, and if they did I doubt they’d think that their behaviour was particularly problematic in any way. A lot them probably thought it was funny and harmless.
The #MeToo movement has made me more resolved than ever to call out both perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, and those who are still victim-blaming and slut-shaming women.
I refuse to restrict my life because of other people’s attitudes and actions and take responsibility for things that I have played no part in.
I will dress how I please, I will go where I want, when I want, and I will behave as I see fit.
Progress will take a long time, and radical changes need to be made before we can start to move forwards. A good place to start is altering our automatic response to accusations from ‘what did she to provoke it?’ or ‘why didn’t she report it at the time?’, to ‘what he did was wrong and he must be punished’. And quite frankly, any woman who takes the side of the abusers instead of supporting her sisters should be ashamed.